This is how it feels: It’s a trot that’s resistance free. He glides with relaxed strides. At first you think it might be slow, but no, his strides are longer. He has time to push from behind. Every vertebrae in his back is loose. His movement is fluid and soft, like riding a wave.
His poll relaxed without fear or tension, knowing there will be no pain in his mouth. Your elbows and hands float on the reins with no pull and no slack. You can trust him to keep his head steady because he’s balanced by the forward movement; true forward relaxes the poll and his spine, all the way to a soft “S” movement to the end of his tail.
You’re sitting the trot. You’re not posting and this is no western pleasure jog. With every stride you feel his hind legs push underneath you and lift your sitbone, one and then the other. Instead of trying to drive your seat back into the saddle, you lift just enough. You ride the up-stride. Lift, lift, lift. Light, light, light. And his stride gets a bit longer because your sitbone has created a space for him to step into. His back lifts and there’s a magnetic quality between your seat and his back. This is where the conversation happens. It’s small and quiet, but his movement is so much more than that.
As you finish the long side of the arena and come through the corner of the short end, toward “C” at the centerline, you give your good horse a half-halt. It’s an inhale, your shoulders straighten a tad, with a light pulse of the thighs, you release quickly enough to feel the tiniest pause as he lifts his shoulders. He’s ready. Then one, two, three strides and your seat melts.
If following his stride with your sitbones continues the trot, then allowing your seat to soften and rest, along with a squeeze of your thighs, means he will come to a halt, right at C. Let a three or five second eternity pass. Breath in, exhale. Let your body be soft, your hands quiet. He is immobile at the halt, standing square, but you both maintain a forward attitude; the shared awareness that you are not done. Inhale and allow your calves just an inch forward with light energy, and as he takes his first stride back, release a sitbone and move with the backward stride in the same way as a walk. One two, three, four. Exactly four strides back, and a halt from a thigh pulse. Immobile.
Notice that you’ve done nothing with your hands. Continue doing that.
Especially now, do not rush your good horse. Inhale and cue his trot confidently with both calves. Go with him on the first stride, light and connected. Exist together inside every stride; feel freedom and cooperation as equals. As you approach the corner, think about your outside aids as you turn your waist. Feel the inside hand open while the outside hand and leg close on his shoulder. Feel him turn underneath you, bending softly through his body. Because it’s natural.
As you begin the long-side, let your legs stretch down and your shoulder blades come closer. Inhale, let your legs ask for longer strides as you extend your elastic elbows just an inch so he can reach forward to the bit and carry you effortlessly on, dancing cheek to cheek.
I believe the halt/rein-back movement is as beautiful as any upper level dressage movement, piaffe or canter half-pass included. Some version of this movement has existed in dressage tests, from Second Level on up, forever. One clue about its difficulty is that a gait is skipped; from rein-back to trot without walk steps. It’s deceptive in its simplicity.
The first thing I love about this movement is that it clearly reveals the quality of communication between the horse and rider. Are the steps diagonal? Is the horse’s mouth relaxed? If your horse’s head and neck can stay soft, if the rider can hold a neutral position, and if your horse can do the movements with out bracing, your partnership will shine. This movement is relentlessly honest about your riding.
The other thing I love about this movement is that a Warmblood doesn’t necessarily do it better than a backyard horse. Where a trot is a subjective thing but this is not abstract. It isn’t about gaits or breed or athleticism. Tack doesn’t matter and any rider is capable. It’s about cooperation and oneness. Much more challenging than upper level party tricks.
Ride the transitions without a horse. Imagine it in slow motion, training your brain to relax and notice details. Become so familiar with the movement that when you’re in the saddle, you can let your brain rest and focus on your seat.
The easiest way to ruin your rein-back? Use it as punishment, pulling the reins, see-sawing hands, using hyperflexion or pulling your horse behind the vertical. Shame on you.
How to train it? Like everything, start with small pieces and do them separately. Remember the top half of your leg cues half-halts, halts, and downward transitions. It might feel more like your knee than your thigh, but it definitely feels different from your lower leg, meaning calf, ankle and foot, which are used for forward cues. Learn to use upper and lower halves separately and correctly.
Start with the halt, give him time to get past not feeling the bit, metal on bone, and feel your leg instead. Even if he just slows a bit, reward approximation. Be aware of your seat in every stride. Ask for longer strides melting to stillness. He is on contact but no pulling. None.
Be clear, ask for his best effort, and reward generously. Then give a long rein and be cheerful. Don’t think too much. Instead, look for any opportunity to say good boy. When you have a soft peaceful halt with no rein, followed by an easy walk off, then begin schooling a rein-back of the same quality. Expect it to take time to become habit. Like piecing a patchwork quilt, stitch one square at a time.
In riding, don’t be fooled by smoke and lights. Anyone can intimidate a horse into speed and jerk them to a halt. If you want to know the truth, look for partnership between the movements. Because the art is always in the transition.